Last week, I was reminded of all the ways kids play with language. They are not bound by grammar or convention. They use their imaginations to express what they see and feel. I read a recent post by fellow SOS blogger, Ramona. She wrote about her recent trip to the Oregon Coast with her grandsons. At the end of the trip, she told her grandson Jack, “You make my heart happy!” Jack replied, “Grandma, you make my elbows laugh!” This memory made me smile, and I was reminded of how wonderfully bright children see the world. I guess that is why I have been a teacher for so many years. I love to witness the wonder that little children experience every day. I don’t want to let go of that. I am holding on tightly.
A Little Orange
At the beginning of my teaching journey, I worked at a nursery school. I taught a mixed class in the afternoon of three to five-year-old children. It was a play-based cooperative school, which meant parents served as assistant teachers in some classes. My afternoon class was wonderful because of the students’ mixed ages. The younger children learned from the older ones, and sometimes the older ones learned from the younger ones. One day, one of the girls, Anna, was sad and missed her mother. I put my arm around her and consoled her. Fat teardrops ran down her face. Just then, an older boy, Henry, came up and asked me why Anna was crying. I said, “She’s okay, Henry, she’s just feeling a little blue right now.” Immediately, Henry went over to Anna and patted her shoulder. He said, “Don’t worry Anna, I’m feeling a little orange myself.” I laughed. “What does it mean to be a little orange?” I asked Henry. “It’s a little angry and a little sad mixed together he said matter-of-factly. I pulled Henry close and hugged him too. I just loved how, without thinking, without knowing the conventional idioms, Henry was able to communicate and create his color code of feelings. He didn’t need permission, he just created on the spot.
Dark Muddy Chocolate Brown
When I taught 2nd grade, we would study a new artist every month. We would read about each artist and then try out an art project in that same style or with the same materials. During one of these classroom studio sessions, I set out a still life with colorful flowers and a deer skull since we were exploring the art of Georgia O’Keefe. I set out pots of paint and paper, encouraging students to create what they saw. One of my students, Matthew, who had limited experience with mixing paint, became engrossed in the activity. He dipped and blotted moving from one pot to the next, eventually announcing that he had discovered a new color. “Look everybody!” he shouted excitedly, “I made Dark Muddy Chocolate Brown! He was so excited by his discovery that he gave each of his classmates a sample of his new color, and they in turn added his color to their palettes. That day, Matthew began to see himself in a new light, as someone who could create art out of simple materials. He was the inventor of Dark Muddy Chocolate Brown! That free exploration and the process of reading, writing, and making art, allowed the children to think of themselves as creators of both art and language.
Looks Like Mashed Potatoes
This past Monday, I got to spend recess time with our Junior PreK. Every time I walk out into the playground, three-year-old (now four-year-old) faces run up to greet me with shouts of: “Look at me! Let’s play catch! Tag! You’re it. Come on, RUN!” One of the boys, Ian, ran up to me and said, “It’s sunny.” Ian is an English language learner. His vocabulary has grown tremendously this year. He is now ready to take more risks, reaching out to teachers and peers to express what he is thinking. I wanted to extend our conversation, so I said, “Yes, it’s warm today and look at those big white clouds.” Ian looked up and said, “Clouds.” I replied, “That one looks like a turtle. And that one looks like a pirate ship.” I exclaimed. Ian kept looking quietly. Emma heard our conversation and looked up at the sky intently. “I see a big doggy and a fish over there,” she said, pointing. Emma and I kept looking and listing all we saw in the clouds: a castle, a banana, a tree, a giraffe, even an elephant! Ian looked up watching the clouds. Then Brittany came over and looked at Emma and me. She looked up at the sky, “Don’t be silly,” she said, “They all look like mashed potatoes,” and walked away. I laughed. There has to be one practical one among the dreamers, I suppose. The children played for the rest of recess, running, skipping, digging, and sliding. As we were about to go back inside, Ian tugged at me and pointed at the sky, “Dragon,” he said with a smile. I smiled and looked up into the sky, “Yes, a dragon,” I said. There stood another dreamer, who skipped happily inside.
As the school year wraps up, I have been thinking about how important imagination is for learning. I think about how we don’t so much need to carve out time for play, but just need to step aside and trust the children. They know what they are doing. They can take simple items – a stick, a rock, a box – and create a whole kingdom. They can take simple words and create a language that is expressive, creative, and unique. They can build messages that surprise and inspire.
Five Books to Uplift Your Imagination
- Chimpanzees for Tea by Jo Empson
- It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles G. Shaw
- Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett
- Max’s Castle (and Max’s Words) by Kate Banks
- Mirror, Mirror by Marilyn Singer
- The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak